Say in 2008, a school district had 1000 students in its school system and spent 10 million dollars in its budget to educate them. That’s a 10,000 per pupil expenditure. Now in 2021, that same district has 1500 students and the school system is spending 11.5 million to educate them. That district is spending more total dollars now than in 2008 on education, but the per-pupil expenditure has gone down – significantly to over 2300 dollars per student or 23 percent.
What many in Raleigh want to pat themselves on the backs about is that we as a state are spending more on education than ever before. And that’s true. Just listen for the many examples to come from legislators looking to get reelected this past year to the NC General Assembly yet never passing a new budget.
But when the average spent per pupil does not increase with the rise in the cost of resources and upkeep and neglects to put into consideration that the population of North Carolina has exploded in the last couple of decades, then that political “victory” becomes empty.
What many in Raleigh may also want to pat themselves on the back about is how much of the state budget is spent on public education. It’s about 56% now.
But we are supposed to. It’s in our constitution.
The Public School Forum of North Carolina’s publication the 2014 Local School Finance Studyprovides a great history of the state’s practice in funding public schooling which is rooted in the proclamation that all children in the state ages 6-21 are guaranteed a good public education. The publication stated:
North Carolina’s first state constitution in 1776 included an education provision that stated, “A School or Schools shall be established by the Legislature for the convenient Instruction of Youth.” The legislature provided no financial support for schools.
A century later, the constitution adopted after the Civil War required the state to provide funding for all children ages 6-21 to attend school tuition-free. In 1901, the General Assembly appropriated $100,000 for public schools, marking the first time there was a direct appropriation of tax revenue for public schools. Today, the constitution mandates that the state provide a “general and uniform system of free public schools” and that the state legislature may assign counties “such responsibility for the financial support of the free public schools as it may deem appropriate.” N.C. Const. art. IX, § 2 (see sidebar, “Sources of Local School Finance Law: The North Carolina State Constitution”).
Apart from the constitutional provisions, a major change in the school funding structure occurred during the Great Depression. Under the School Machinery Act (enacted in 1931 and amended in 1933), the state assumed responsibility for all current expenses necessary to maintain a minimum eight-month school term and an educational program of basic content and quality (instructional and program expenses). In exchange for the state’s expanded role, local governments assumed responsibility for school construction and maintenance (capital expenses). The School Machinery Act established counties as the basic unit for operating public schools, which is maintained today with large county-wide school systems, except in the 11 counties that also have city school systems.
What this means is that the state has the responsibility for the financing of basic functions for public education like salaries for personnel, services for special-needs students, technology, professional development, even textbooks. To say that the state spends around 56% of its budget on public education and then consider that to be the end-all-and-be-all to the argument is really ignoring the reasons why such a dynamic exists.
In the past before the GOP’s current majority in the NC General Assembly began, the state spent an even higher percentage on public education because THAT IS WHAT THE STATE CONSTITUTION DECLARED. Those percentages of spending are not a badge of honor that this General Assembly gets to wear; it was earned many decades ago. The fact that the percentage is getting lower actually is not a positive sign for this administration. It is a reflection that the NCGA’s level of commitment to public education is wavering.
Lest we forget, some of the very people who are bragging about how well they have treated public education in this state have really in fact weakened it – deliberately. How? Here is a sampling:
- The financing of failed charter schools that have little or no oversight.
- The funding of vouchers (Opportunity Grants) that effectively remove money for public education and reallocate it to private schools – actually over 93% of them go to religious schools.
- The under-funding of our public university system, which forces increases in tuition, while giving tax breaks to companies who benefit from our educated workforce.
- The dismantling of the Teaching Fellows Program that recruited our state’s brightest to become the teachers of our next generation.
- The removal of the cap for class size for traditional schools and claiming it will not impede student learning. And now they want to make a class cap size for k-3, but are not willing to help finance the enormous amount of building that would have to occur to facilitate the massive number of new classes.
- The removal of graduate pay salary increases for those new teachers who have a Master’s degree or higher.
- The administration of too many tests (EOCTs, NC Finals, etc.), many of which are scored well after grades are due.
- The constant change in curriculum standards (Standard Course of Study, Common Core, etc.).
- The propping of the most enabled yet invisible state superintendent of public instruction.
The number of LEA’s embroiled in a fight to fund its public schools is rather large– literally. Many parents and advocates are even asking to pay more taxes if they knew it would go to the schools.
If North Carolina’s leaders were serious about helping our public schools instead of praising themselves and trying to invent ways to create obstacles to validate “reform” then there would be no need for this fight.
And they sure as hell wouldn’t use our students as political pawns.